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Psychological and Behavioural Sciences Tripos

 

What is the acceptance rate for the PBS course? 

The PBS course is relatively new – it first started about 5 years ago – but it has already become one of the most popular courses within the University of Cambridge, attracting just under 8 applicants for each place (this is behind computer science and architecture, but ahead of medicine, engineering, maths, history etc). This high applicant to place ratio should not deter you from applying – the best way of not getting a place is not to apply! But it does mean that you should not feel that you have ‘failed’ if you don’t get an offer - we know that we have to turn away lots of fantastic students in order to offer the personalised level of teaching that makes Cambridge special. If you applied for a job that had a shortlist of 8 people, you’d still want to attend the interview – if only to chalk up the experience! 

Are there any required or preferred subjects? 

The standard offer is a minimum of A*AA in any subjects at A-Level (or equivalent), International Baccalaureate results of 40-42 out of 45, or 776 or 777 in Scottish Highers – but a few colleges (e.g., Downing) make slightly stiffer offers (A*A*A). There are no prerequisite subjects for PBS but maths and biology are both useful. 

For PBS, most colleges do not specify any required A level (or equivalent) subjects. For example, there is no need to have studied Psychology before applying. Subjects that show you can understand the scientific and mathematical basic of psychology are helpful. About two thirds of our students have studied either Maths or Biology or both at A level. However, these are not formal requirements and our analyses have not shown any significant difference in university performance between PBS students who did or did not take either subject. One reason for this may be that there are a number of opportunities (often organised by colleges) for students without A level Maths / Biology to have a few ‘catch up’ supervisions. That said, the admissions interview may well touch on topics such as probability, or include a simple cognitive estimation task, so it is a good idea to brush up on your GCSE maths in preparation. Some colleges may place more emphasis on science or humanities results than others – so check the individual college website. 

For more information, provided by the University, see: http://www.study.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/publications/docs/requirements.pdf here. 

How should I write my personal statement? 

You should write your UCAS statement to be appropriate for all the University and courses to which you have applied. While some universities may want information about extra-curricular activities, we suggest that you use your statement to show us why you are keen on studying Psychology at university level – is it neuroscience that has ignited your interest, or a particular aspect of cognitive, social or developmental psychology that fascinates you? We may use the personal statements as a starting point for questions at interview, so don’t include anything that you wouldn’t want to talk about (e.g., only mention books you’ve enjoyed if you’d be happy to have a conversation about them). 

We recognise that this year it is especially difficult for students to gain relevant work experience – but actually it is never the case that there are particular kinds of work experience that we expect students to have. Instead, we are interested in how any work experience you have managed to accrue has changed how you think about psychology – for example, has it given you insight or inspiration? 

In addition to the UCAS statement, Cambridge also asks applicants to complete the Supplementary Applicant Questionnaire (SAQ), which is only seen by Cambridge. You can use the SAQ to be more specific about the options within PBS that you might wish to study. Further information about the SAQ is available: http://www.study.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/apply/saq.html here. 

Is there a specific college that is good for Psychology? 

All Cambridge colleges except Peterhouse accept PBS students – but colleges do differ in the number of PBS students they take each year – 2-3 would be typical, but some colleges may only take 1 and other colleges may take as many as 5 or 6. This shouldn’t make a difference to how hard or easy it is to get a place, as there is a ‘pool’ system, to ensure that excellent candidates who have applied to a college that happens to be over-subscribed for PBS in that year will get considered by other colleges. For example, last year, UCAS mistakenly posted a notice to say that PBS students should apply to Jesus College – and so this college saw an unexpected spike in the number of applications. Most colleges have a Director of Studies who is a member of the Department – and so it may be helpful to read about their field of research when considering colleges – but please don’t choose a college based on the presence of one person – as that person may no longer be there when you arrive. Some people advocate choosing a college in the same way as they might choose a place to live; while thinking about the size and age of the college might be helpful, the mantra ‘location location location’ is probably less useful as nearly all the colleges are within walking distance of the Department. If you have a particular interest in theatre or sport or music, you could check out whether the college(s) that have caught your eye also have the kinds of resources that would be valuable to you. Colleges are closed during the pandemic, so you can’t physically walk around – but most have created virtual tours that you can access online. Please note that Newnham College and Murray Edwards are women only. However, students at these colleges will have the same sort of co-ed experiences as others, as both colleges are quite relaxed about male guests - and the new Iris Café in Newnham has become very popular with students from other colleges. Note also that supervisions often involve students from different colleges working together… 

When I apply, will I have to specify the options I expect to choose within the Tripos? 

Some Colleges may ask you if you have any particular interests, for example whether you’d prefer to be interviewed by someone with an interest in biological or social theories of behaviour. This helps colleges to co-ordinate their interview process, and to ensure you have an interview that reflects your personal strengths. These choices will only be used for your application; you will not be required to stick with any choice that you make at interview, if a college makes you an offer. 

What are the typical interview arrangements? 

We have discontinued the pre-interview assessments (e.g., Thinking Skills Assessment) and so you may be asked to submit some written work – but each College organises its own interviews and so the process will not be identical at all of them. Please see College websites for more details. In 2020, we are expecting that interviews will be largely virtual – and this may mean that they are held over a longer period of time than the traditional first fortnight in December. Currently, staff in the university are engaged in discussions about how to ensure that these virtual interviews are as fair as possible – so watch this space for more information in the autumn. 

What do I need to know about Psychology when I apply and come for an interview? 

We do not require you to have studied any specific subject to study PBS. The style of interviews will vary between colleges, but your interviewers will all try to ask questions that allow you to show that you have thought about the subject, and have an aptitude and enthusiasm for study in Psychology. For example, they may ask you to demonstrate awareness of the real-world application of the subject; an interview may focus on developing ideas from one of the subjects you have studied, particularly if you have already expressed a particular interest. Other interviewers may invite you to comment on a graph or a table – these will not be ‘trick’ questions, but rather a platform for further questions. In many ways, the interview should feel rather like a ‘supervision’ (the term we give to small-group or individual teaching). The interviewer will be getting a sense of whether you are the kind of student they’d love to teach: If you get a prompt, do you make good use of it? Are you flexible in the way that you think? Interviewers are looking for a capacity to understand scientific concepts and to develop and apply ideas. They are much less interested in what you already know – and if you give an answer that appears well-rehearsed, they are likely to move quickly on to another topic. Most colleges hold two separate interviews with each candidate – one interview may be quite scientific in focus, while the other may be more general. We are not looking for students who already have all the answers, but rather those who show potential to thrive on the course. 

What combinations of papers can I take? 

In the first year, students take two psychology courses, as well as two other courses from a range of the subject options. Some of these courses are taken from the first year of the HSPS Tripos (see http://www.hsps.cam.ac.uk/current-students/partI); there are no restrictions on these choices. If you wished to study courses from the Natural Sciences Tripos (Evolution & Behaviour; Mathematical Biology; Neurobiology;) you would normally be expected to have science or maths A levels, and students wishing to study one or two of the courses from the Philosophy Tripos would need approval from those teaching Philosophy within the College. 

During the second and third years, there is the opportunity to choose from a range of courses alongside the ‘core’ psychology topics. Currently, the available options for each year include: 

PART IA 

World Archaeology 

Humans in Biological Perspective 

Evolution and Behaviour* 

Mathematical Biology* 

Metaphysics* 

Moral and Political Philosophy* 

The Modern State and its Alternatives 

Social Anthropology: The Comparative Perspective 

Modern Societies I: Introduction to Sociology 

PART IB 

Human Ecology and Behaviour 

Human Evolution 

Human Comparative Biology 

Foundations in Criminology and Criminal Justice 

History of Science 

Philosophy of Science 

Neurobiology* 

Metaphysics and Epistemology* 

Political Philosophy* 

Social Theory 

Modern societies II: Global Social Problems and Dynamics of Resistance* 

PART II 

Evolutionary Anthropology and Behaviour 1 

Evolutionary Anthropology and Behaviour 2 

Criminology, Sentencing and the Penal System 

Philosophy and Scientific Practice 

Developmental Psychopathology 

The Family 

Cognitive and Experimental Psychology 

Behavioural and Cognitive Neuroscience 

Philosophy of Mind* 

Political Philosophy* 

Racism, Race and Ethnicity 

Medicine, Body and Society 

For more information about the course

 

What would be a typical day for a Psychology student? 

We are still working with the University and Colleges to design the best teaching and learning experience we can for 2020-2021, but a typical timetable for a first year student might be: 

10am: Lecture on the validity and reliability of IQ measures (delivered online) 

11am: Grab a coffee from the ‘Sanctuary’ (free for staff and students between 11-12 each day) and use the department library to work on your essay exploring what fMRI measures in the brain 

12am: Practical class – experimental design and statistics 

1pm: Lunch with your social bubble in college 

2pm: Use your college library to consolidate your learning from the practical 

3pm: Supervision with your lecturer and two other students to discuss your last essay and related lecture material (supervisions can be held either in college or in a department meeting room). 

4pm: Lecture from one of your option papers (e.g., Biological Anthropology - delivered online) 

As you can see from this outline of a day, our students are kept very busy! In part this is because whereas other universities might spread their teaching across 10-12 weeks per term, our terms are only 8 weeks long. Getting used to the pace of work can be a challenge at first, but most students embrace the ‘work hard play hard’ mentality we try to encourage. Every student has a Director of Studies (DoS) at their college, whom they meet at least twice a term to discuss progress / interests / problems. Your supervisors and your DoS play an important role in ensuring you get the most from the course – so good communication with them is important! The department also has student reps on the ‘Wellbeing Equality and Diversity’ Committee, the PBS Management Committee and the Staff-Student Committee, so there are plenty of avenues for seeking advice and support. Wednesday afternoons are usually left free of lectures to enable students to take part in sporting fixtures and the collegiate nature of the university means that there is an amazingly long list of clubs, societies, interest groups etc that students can join - at both college and university levels. 

What are the job prospects for Psychology students? 

Psychology is a very broad subject – and increasingly, career paths are becoming more flexible and varied than they may have been in the past, making this a difficult question to answer. The course is accredited by the British Psychological Society, such that it is a recognised route into careers in clinical, health educational and occupational psychology etc. For more information, see: https://careers.bps.org.uk 

To ensure that our students have access to really up-to-date information about careers, we have started to supplement our traditional careers information with Q&A sessions with former students. To this end we have set up a gallery of alumni, which we hope to expand over the next few years. For inspiration, see: https://www.psychol.cam.ac.uk/study/ugadmissions/pbs-alumni-profiles 

Do you have a recommended reading list? 

The following books give you a good general background to the PBS Tripos: 

Blakemore, S-J (2018) Inventing ourselves (Royal Society). 

Bullmore, E. (2018). The inflamed mind (Macmillan). 

Criado-Perez, C. (2019) Invisible women (Chatto). 

Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: constructing the conscious brain. (Vintage Books). 

LeDoux, J (2003). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (Penguin). 

Fine, C (2017). Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the myths of our gendered mind (Royal Society). 

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind (Penguin). 

Hrdy, S (2011). Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Harvard 

University Press). 

Kahneman, D (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). 

Pinker, S (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking). 

Sacks, O (1985). The Man who mistook his wife for a hat (Summit Books). 

Sapolsky, R (1994). Why zebras don’t get ulcers (Macmillan)